On July 26, 2012, the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the University of Albany / SUNY issued a press release announcing, in cooperation with SAP, an open government thought leadership program. I recently attended CTG’s workshop on this topic, along with 25 colleagues from government and academia, and we’re excited about the upcoming White Paper CTG will publish on this compelling topic.
There are pro’s and con’s of the “Open Government” topic. This could be a polarizing subject, with positions ranging from “it’s all good” juxtaposed against “will the government put a metal plate in my head and read my thoughts?”
First, the context. We’re talking about non-personal and non-sensitive data. We’re not talking about the government disclosing anything that puts lives at risk, jeopardizes privacy or shares your high school yearbook photo, the one with the funny hairstyle.
Onto the “pro’s” for open government:
1) Civic engagement. Making information accessible will hopefully instill and renew trust in government, persuade people to get involved, and counter voter apathy.
2) Disclose “public value” or “return on tax dollars” the government delivers to the public. The spans financial, operational, social and political dimensions and can be quantitative and/or qualitative. Governments can highlight cost savings and cost avoidance, and improved social outcomes, like more cops on the street. Or fulfilled policies, such as environmental standards for clean air.
3) Scalable, crowd-sourced problem solving and “citizen-generated” apps. Governments can encourage citizens to use both raw data and data sets to develop innovative ways to create or enhance services. For real examples, visit http://data.gov.uk and explore some of the apps the public have created using data released by HM Government. Another idea is to incentivize the public via contests to develop apps – using recognition as a reward, or even grant money to operationalize their winning app ideas. See the Portland’s CivicApps for examples.
4) Transparency – helps government officials provide context for their decisions, policies and positions.
5) Ease of access – helps the public get out of line and online. Mobile and cloud technology exists to allow governments to push, or respond to “pull” from the public, for information on a variety of devices, virtually from anywhere, 24/7.
6) Precedence – not solely a “pro” argument, but governments already share huge amounts of information – websites, public broadcasts, cable broadcasts, public meetings, recorded videos council meetings, documents, and so on. Freedom of Information Acts have been around for a long time, and the genie is out of the bottle – you can’t put it back.
Now, for the “cons” to open government:
1) Disclosure of information that puts lives at risk, or jeopardizes privacy. Could be unintentional, or accidental, or not – look at the situation where military and government employees gave WikiLeaks sensitive and classified information in recent years.
2) Cost – gathering data, processing it, and putting it into datasets takes time, money and people.
3) High level of effort to create governance of what information to disclose. Institutionalizing transparency across different agencies, ministries and departments, and establishing standardized approaches to what can be shared will be time consuming and complicated.
So, what’s the verdict? Open or not?
In my opinion – open. The sheer volume of information available today directly from governments, NGO’s, non-profits and affiliated business partners will undoubtedly continue to expand. Contrary to the “metal plate in my head” conspiracy theory, governments would only release information that supports improved services, transparency and accountability, and not disclose the location where you buried the coffee can containing your #1 edition Spiderman comic book.
The data market in the commercial sector is growing, and technologies exist to support open government policies. The typical challenges can be overcome and managed, and are outweighed by the advantages listed above. While nobody can accurately predict how people will use information once it’s available, the potential benefits and creative possibilities should compel governments to at least evaluate an open data policy.
What’s your opinion?
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